Public Domain Shadow

Copyright is one of those laws that make sense in principle, but whose application got twisted so terribly by lobbies that they lost their meaning. It is fantastic to have laws protecting your work as an author! But everybody dies. The idea that you should receive money after your death was the start of the absurdity that copyright has turned into.

Copyright was first put into law through Britain’s Statute of Anne in 1710. The intent was to give an incentive and a remuneration to printers and authors. The new law prescribed a copyright term of 14 years, and allowed renewal for another term.

More and more countries adopted copyright laws. They eventually all encompassed the author’s whole life. In the midst of the French Revolution, as privileges of the royalty were dropped, they voted a law in 1791 to help the authors that stirred the Revolution. In case their children needed help after the death of their parents, they included a 5-year span where the copyright was inherited.

That 5-year span got increased time and time again, lobbies helping, up to the 70 years that it now is.

An interesting impact of those increases is that there are large chunks of time where no piece of art could enter the public domain. I plotted those chunks in red: during those periods, the public domain stagnates. In order to help visualize why, I also plotted for a few years the time when the production of that year’s dead artists would eventually enter public domain by reaching the blue line. The post-mortem age of this art creates rays that are interrupted by the change in law, producing what I call a Public Domain Shadow.

Plot of post-mortem copyright law and public domain shadow

Surprisingly, we currently are in a Public Domain Shadow which will end in 2019, unless copyright gets extended yet again. Until then, we won’t get to remix anything new.

The post-mortem inheritance of copyright has gone too far. 5 years was arguable, but excessive; 70 gives a new meaning to excess. An example of their absurdity: “Petit Papa Noël”, a song so anchored in France’s culture that it is practically its “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” (or it would be if that song wasn’t also French), will only come out of copyright in 2055. The composer was born in 1905: he would be 150 years old when it will finally be public domain.